Ever been in a barn?

You already know about the barn I’ve owned the past 20 years – the one that gives this blog its name. It’s modest, as barns go – more of a carriage house, common in an old New England city like ours, but “carriage house” sounds pretentious and ours isn’t. I usually call them “urban barns.”

I grew up in a Midwestern industrial city, and barns were usually something we passed out in the country. Even so, my novels Nearly Canaan, Yoga Bootcamp, and Pit-a-Pat High Jinks, each feature a barn.

Here are ten I especially remember.

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  1. Uncle Arlie’s. We spent many Sundays and holidays at my dad’s aunt and uncle’s farm. I loved climbing around in the rafters and loft, even though it was dangerous.
  2. Grandpa’s. A small “urban barn” at the rear of Grandma and Grandpa’s yard on the other side of town was stuffed with supplies for his plumbing company. I can still almost smell it.
  3. Dad’s birthplace. Once, traveling with Grandpa, we stopped at a farm in the middle of nowhere. He introduced me to a strange man and took me inside the barn on the farm while telling me this is where my dad was born. I was around five, maybe no older than seven, and didn’t fully understand, especially the idea of home births much less than Dad wasn’t born in a city. What I do remember is all the light shining through the slats of the walls.
  4. Moler Dairy. From our side window when I was growing up, we could see a working dairy. It had a large white barn facing busy Smithfield Road, while we were on a quiet side street. I did get to tour the bottom level a few times, with its stanchions and cows. The brick milking parlor was next to it.
  5. Hippie farm. After college, I shared a farmhouse with a circle of other free spirits. Its small, ramshackle barn provided living space for some of the characters in Pit-a-Pat High Jinks.
  6. Ashram. That sturdy brown barn is described in Yoga Bootcamp. It was Swiss-style, set in the side of a hill.
  7. Ivar’s. Our landlord in Wapato had one of the most impressive barns in the Yakima Valley. It was white frame, rather than modern metal, and had three large levels. It’s detailed in Nearly Canaan.
  8. The Antique House. The large attached barn, as many in New England are, is part of the house where elder stepdaughter reigns. It’s second-nature now.
  9. Silas and Connie Weeks. They were intent on restoring their ancient farm in Eliot, Maine. Quaker Meeting even had a wedding reception in theirs.
  10. Parsell Farm. Serves as a farm stand just up the road in Rochester. Our principal source of hay for the rabbits.

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A few others I should mention include the massive Shaker barn in Canterbury where I contradanced once, and another in Ohio I once toured. A similar one, but kept to a single story, was at a friend’s summer home in Sandwich in the White Mountains to our north. And then there was a decrepit one at my goddaughter’s family in Enfield, Maine, that was too far gone to repair.

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What are your experiences with barns?

What do you know about apples?

Maybe Jaya and Joshua took apples for granted when they moved into an orchard in my novel Nearly Canaan. That ignorance didn’t last long.

Here are a few of the things they may have discovered.

  1. Apples are a member of the rose family. (Good thing they don’t have thorns!)
  2. Apples have to be picked by hand.
  3. The trees require four or five years to produce their first fruit. Some trees grow to be 100.
  4. Apples account for half of the world’s deciduous fruit tree production. China, by the way, grows more apples than any other country.
  5. They come in sizes ranging from as small as a cherry to as big as a grapefruit – and can weigh up to three pounds.
  6. More than 2,500 varieties are grown in the U.S. but only the crabapple is native. Globally, more than 7,500 varieties are raised.
  7. The first apple tree in North America was planted by the Pilgrims.
  8. The harvest from an average tree can fill 20 bushels or boxes each weighing 42 pounds.
  9. About 36 apples go into a gallon of cider.
  10. Upstate New York used to be a big producer until acid rain from Midwestern coal-powered plants led to serious blight.

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And, yes, as far as that apple a day doctor thing goes, the fruit has no sodium, cholesterol, or fat but is rich in fiber.

What can you add to the list?

Beware, the Romantic Cult of the Artist

Yes, we’ve admired madmen, especially those of a tragic sort via what I see as often incestuous works of art. You know, celebrations of other works of art or, especially, their creators.

In effect, there’s a question. Other works based on mythology, classical or Nordic, typically, face immortals who are still caught in some dimension of time – how else could they spawn children?

Turning the focus from flawed gods to the Immortal Artist, then, implicitly asks: Are madmen closer to God? Or filled with demons to be cast out, perhaps as artworks?

You know, the cliché history of poet suicides or pianist-composers who die at an early age or libertine actresses, that sort of tragedy, not always as a consequence of defying the gods, either. Think of all the poets in the core opera librettos – a shorthand for the librettist himself or the social commentator – as well as the composers or singers. It’s a long list.

Remember, too, in many Native cultures, there’s a special place for the madman as gateway to ancient wisdom or healing or a netherworld.

Admired madmen but also feared them. Just don’t get too close, even with a morbid curiosity.

Like the artist, they exist at the fringe of the village.

It’s implicit even in hymns about hymns and the raising of voices.

And also my speaking here as a fellow poet and novelist.

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It’s hard to look beyond our own boundaries and explore the greater world beyond.

This is crucial, if we’re to engage others, in light of murder, rape, warfare, and other oppression and injustice around us. Is art really far from fostering imitation in life itself? Or is it rather for escape from any reality? Do we desire encounter or flight?

Earlier, I admired dazzling tricks and outward style, derring-do, and jests with fancy footwork. Shining surfaces and surreal images.

Over time, that’s changed.

My heroes have become more human and flawed, as well.

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Throughout much of Friends’ history, many of the fine arts were offensive to the faithful; most painting, drawing, sculpture, fiction, theater, music, and opera were seen as superfluous vanities, engagements that took our attention away from worship. “We Quakers only read true things” is how one Friend expressed the matter when returning an unread novel to a neighbor. For a people who refused even gravestones, worldly adornments detracted from loving a heavenly Father with all their heart, mind, and soul, as well as loving one another as Christ had loved his/its followers.

Tertullian issued a related warning, in De Spectaculis, Latin circa 200 CE. Essentially: “The Author of truth loves no falsehood: all that is feigned is adultery in His sight. The man who counterfeits voice, sex or age, who makes a show of false love, anger, sighs and tears He will not approve, for He condemns all hypocrisy. … Why should it be lawful to see what it is a crime to do?” (Translation by Kenneth Morse)

As was recognized in Zen some centuries ago, when people started writing and singing and painting and acting from their spiritual practice, the flowering is already past its zenith. Nonetheless, we also know the power of the Zen-suffused works as they extended on to pottery, architecture, tea ceremony, even martial arts.

When I view Japanese and Chinese art, the Zen/Chan pieces jump out in their freshness from the well-schooled stream of traditional art.

Thus, with poetry or musical performance that knows living silence: a whole higher dimension. Necessity for revolution here. Transformation. Transfiguration. Transcendence. Transparency, too.

Is this a matter of like recognizing like spirit?

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My real distrust of the celebration of the artist as a demigod comes in a plea for greater humility.

Yes, we work – as the poem Toltecatl, translated as “The Artist” by Denise Leverov details lovingly before countering with “The carrion artist: works at random, sneers at the people, / makes things opaque, brushes across the surface of things, / works without care, defrauds people, is a thief.”

The contrast is telling.

We’re hardly alone in work. Plumbers work, paying the price in their knees. Farmers work. Teachers work. Mothers, especially, work. Go on down the line, and admire all who do so with developed skill and intelligence and service. Who can say one field is truly superior the others?

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I’m left wondering about a crossover identity of artist and priest, an expectation that the artist is expected to guide others into love or even the natural wonder around us.

It’s a fine line, between being a priest and a demigod. An inflated ego is a constant temptation, among others.

Still, how can I not love the movie “Amadeus”?

Who do you look to for inspiration?

People of today I admire

OK, I’m counting couples as one here. And I’m excluding some nominees I celebrated earlier in the year in my ten fine couples list. Here goes:

  1. The Obamas, of course.
  2. And my wife and daughters and the two guys they bring into my life. Natchurally. Think of this as a team.
  3. Noah Merrill, the ever patient and faithful field secretary of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends.
  4. Brown Letham, energetic painter and activist and father of one very fine author.
  5. Jim and Eden Grace, holy peaceniks on a global scale.
  6. Timothy and Nijmeh Curren, Orthodox priest and presbvtera.
  7. George and Althea Coussoule, welcoming stalwarts of Dover’s Greek community.
  8. Sherry Wood. See my dedication in Hometown News.
  9. Jay O’Hara, free-Gospel minister and Quaker activist.
  10. Gary Snyder, American poet and Zen Buddhist.

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So what if this adds up to more than ten individuals in all?

Who’s high on your own list?

How about some remarkable couples?

Sometimes the sum is greater than the parts. Helps when each of the parts is already sterling.

Here are ten examples.

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  1. My best friend’s parents: Hap and Pauline. Among other things, they nurtured my love of classical music.
  2. Our drip-line neighbors: Tim and Maggie. Warm, welcoming, generous, helpful, social justice activists, great parents. The list could go on.
  3. Political science mentors: Vincent and Elinor. They taught me how to read analytically and how to dissect public policy proposals. As professors, they never used textbooks but relied on real books, like the Federalist Papers or Democracy in America. Their goal was to train independent scholars and fellow practitioners.
  4. My ex in-laws: Sam and Jeanice. Losing them was the hardest part of the divorce.
  5. Can you identify them in the novel? Phyllis and Ivar.
  6. Memorable ministers: Myrtle and Howard at Winona Friends Meeting. She had the entire Bible memorized. And the dynamics were multiplied when they were joined by their best friends and neighbors, Rose and Harold.
  7. Faithful Mennonites: Bob and Ruby. I learned to sing harmony through Bob, who was also a beloved physics teacher and an avid Orioles fan. Ruby had taught in a one-room schoolhouse before moving on to the big city of Baltimore. She packed the most amazing dinners in her small tote bag, which she shared with all of us at the ballgames.
  8. Fellow Quakers: Jeremiah and Beth. Now that they’ve moved to Dover, we’re getting to know them even better. Lucky us.
  9. An ex-girlfriend’s parents: Gene and Doris. They welcomed me to a whole new world and were surprisingly liberal when it came to their daughter. Guess they really liked me.
  10. Cornerstones of the Meeting: Silas and Connie. Wish I could show you the video. And then, just up the road at Gonic, we had Shirley and Eddie.

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Who would you nominate from your own circles?

What are your favorite Christmas hymns and carols?

Frankly, I can do without all of the secular holiday music, or at least most of it. I want something less contrived and commercial. Even Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker score wears thin.

I’m not entirely insensitive, though. Here are ten I enjoy singing, especially in a choir.

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  1. People, Look East: this 1928 Advent carol by Eleanor Farjeon is a joyous accompaniment when making preparations ahead of Christmas.
  2. In the Bleak Midwinter: I want to think of this as a plaintive folksong, but the words are by Christina Rossetti and the music’s by English master Gustav Holst. It catches the blue side of the approaching winter, but also the hope and comfort to be found therein.
  3. Once in Royal David’s City: If you can, go for the fully celebrative midnight mass with a full pipe organ and all five verses sung in the Anglican style that alternates soft and loud.
  4. There Are Angels Hovering Round: It’s an old call-and-response hymn that seems to have hundreds of verses, if you want to keep going. There’s no escaping the sense of togetherness when you’re singing.
  5. Fairest and Brightest (Star of the East): I first heard this in a recording by Kentucky folksinger Jean Ritchie, but it also works in formal arrangements. The text is a protest song befitting the suffering classes of the story.
  6. Nouvelle Agreable: by Swiss composer Jean-Georges Nageli, the bouncy music almost sounds like Mozart though even Native Americans near the Arctic will sing and dance to it, too. (Check it out on YouTube.)
  7. La Valse Cadienne de Noel: words and music by Jeannette V. Aguillard. What, you don’t waltz during the Twelve Days of Christmas?
  8. Traveler’s Carol: A traditional Catalan carol of coming together for the holiday. We use English by Susan Cooper in an arrangement by George Emlen.
  9. The Coventry Carol: a haunting sense of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and of the crucifixion to come infuse this lullaby.
  10. The Old Year is Dying: a cheerful Welsh piece to welcome the New Year. Again, New Year’s Day falls in the Twelve Days.

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What are your favorites?

Ten ‘First World’ problems

So many modern annoyances seem minor when you look at a more global perspective. I know, it’s become a cliché over the past few years, but it’s true.

For instance.

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  1. My refrigerator is too full but there’s nothing I wanna eat.
  2. I lost the remote. How do you turn the thing on?
  3. My wallet’s too small.
  4. Why does my favorite take-out close so early?
  5. None of the ten outfits I tried on for the weekend quite do it. I’ll have to buy something new.
  6. There’s no dip for the chips.
  7. I can’t decide whether to take the trip to Paris with my sister or Hawaii with my mother. They’re both the same week.
  8. My Fitbit doesn’t have a heart rate monitor.
  9. The cleaner couldn’t make it last week. My bin’s almost full.
  10. My toilet paper roll is too big for the holder.

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My, aren’t we spoiled. What would you add to the list?